Open and Leashed at the Bryant Lake Bowl

Lightsey Darst reviews the first performance in the "Saturday is the New Monday Series" at Bryant-Lake Bowl. This Saturday (February 11), it'll be "In the Buff: Naked Choreography."


Saturday is the New Monday Series started February 4 with “Open & Leashed, ” with Jennifer Allen and Deke Weaver. The series continues through February.

The “Saturday is the New Monday” series, organized by Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater artistic director Kristin Van Loon as a way to bring together local and national artists doing interesting new work, opened with dancer/choreographer Jennifer Allen (New York) and writer/performer Deke Weaver (originally from Minnetonka but now, according to his bio, everywhere) presenting several short, separate, yet complementary works. Instantly as I watched I was thinking. This isn’t always the case, as some artworks simultaneously exhaust their own thin material and prevent the viewer from coming up with anything else. So I can begin with this compliment, which for me defines the category of work I’m really interested in: Allen and Weaver made me think.

One of my thoughts was an old one given new life: is there any real difference between the various arts? The manner of presentation, the medium, is our standard way of differentiating. And yet the fact that we can so coldly dismiss all that as “the manner of presentation” suggests to me that one artist’s words and another artist’s dance steps may be nearly the same thing—especially when, as in this performance, words and steps are used in exactly the same way, as strange little engines pushed forward into the world to approximate a certain personal idea or feeling which they will never, because of their perverse autonomy, accurately render.

Allen, brushing her teeth with an electric toothbrush, flops from one pose to the next in a blue mood undermined by the bathing-beauty curves of her poses. Weaver’s stories leap from word to word, the words (“fuzzy,” “hungry,” “no!”) changing the direction of the story. Allen and Weaver are aware of what they do; one of the subjects underlying Allen’s elliptical, moody dance pieces and Weaver’s stagey stories is the inability to communicate directly. Are we all just artists, then, all quarreling with and ruled by our untrustworthy media?

The genre-blurring is compounded by Weaver’s theatrics and Allen’s postmodernism. At some point—when, hunched over to show his character’s misery, putting all his weight on the insides of his feet, he screamed “NO!” with the veins standing out on the side of his head—I wondered whether Weaver might not consider himself a dancer. He certainly uses his body enough. He writes his own stories, and yet I can’t imagine simply reading one of his stories after seeing them performed. Strict categories fail where Weaver is concerned.

Allen works in a type of postmodern dance that we see in Minneapolis as well, in which the performance is a mix of video, props, costumes, and movement—and the movement isn’t dance, or at least not “dancey-dance” (as one choreographer put it), but rather idiosyncratic gestures and means of locomotion. Postmodern dance requires not triple pirouettes but strict placement, stage presence, and (often) the ability to withstand pain. Allen squeaked around stage in a strange backwards knee-shuffle, barked like a dog, worked the ruffles of a very frilly top, and slouched. Her performance had more in common with Weaver’s than it did with Les Sylphides (though, in my enthusiasm for uniting the arts, I would maintain that neither is very far from that romantic ballet).

If you haven’t caught it already from the details, this was a delightful, engaging, frequently funny performance. Weaver’s story “A Small Leashed Monkey,” featuring a social superhero who creates a salad replica of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, raises a toast to the monkey in the painting, and later turns out to be possessed by demonic and beautiful worms, is especially brilliant. The Bryant-Lake Bowl’s tiny, intimate space, irregular seating, and drink menu also help; in fact, when you’re enjoying cabaret-style performance, it’s hard to imagine anything else. The jokes work so well, Allen’s deadpan and Weaver’s rubber face are so amusing, and the whole hour is thoroughly entertaining.

But I wonder—just a question to consider on the car ride home—if I should be doing the work of connecting everything that happens to my own emotions. Allen’s “Open:Rachel” centers on a blank moodiness, maybe a loss. But the piece ends with some clever PB&J nostalgia, without ever having communicated this sadness or loss or ennui to the audience. Something deeper moved below the surface—and nearly appeared in some moments of upward-gazing dancing—but never broke through.

It’s not a new idea that the chief deficiency of postmodern art is its lack of emotional resonance, but now I’m beginning to wonder if some of the things that attract us to postmodern art—its irony, its magic, its sly referentiality, all so agreeable to those of us who know better than anyone else—aren’t standing in the way of that emotional connection. Can an invulnerable art move us? And postmodern art is invulnerable, impervious to criticism—by its boutique sensibility, its freshly-invented and ever-changing criteria, and its smiling knowledge of the uselessness of great ambitions.